SUPERINTENDENT Hobart Cawood had to make a choice. He was faced with a leaky roof over Independence Hall, a part of Independence Mall park unsafe because of crumbling bricks and broken benches, and rising maintenance costs. He could close eight buildings temporarily, furlough 25 interpreters and guards, and use the money from their wages to pay for the work. He could curtail visiting hours and ranger talks at Independence Hall or the Liberty Bell. Or else he could let the park deteriorate. Mr. Cawood, who already had reduced his staff from 226 to 200 to make a stagnant budget cover increased operating costs, decided to close the buildings and furlough their staffs. So for almost six months last winter and this spring, thousands of visitors to this birthplace of American independence found ``Closed Until Further Notice'' signs on the Second Bank of the United States, the Marine Corps Museum, the house where Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, and five other buildings.
The buildings would have been closed even longer and further cuts made in visitor services without the timely aid of Rep. Thomas M. Foglietta (D) of Pennsylvania, who nudged members of the House Appropriations Committee into adding $654,000 to the fiscal 1991 budget. The leaking roof has been reshingled, the Mall is being beautified, and the furloughed staff restored. And the Park Service is requesting a permanent increase in the park's budget.
Many other historical and cultural areas and sites, which make up more than two-thirds of the National Park Service's 357 units, have not been so fortunate. Their restoration and rehabilitation needs total more than $500 million. Within the park system are an estimated 26 million historical and archaeological objects, many of them priceless and irreplaceable. Although progress has been made in the past four years, 12 million of the items remain uncataloged.
``We have been falling behind for the last 25 years in caring for our cultural treasures,'' says Jerry Rogers, Park Service associate director for cultural resources. ``Deterioration is happening slowly and steadily everywhere.''
Some of the historic places that are in urgent need of attention:
* Jefferson Memorial in Washington, where marble is deteriorating and part of a column recently fell 60 feet to the ground.
* Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, where a chimney collapsed in one of the buildings, forcing the Park Service to tear down the entire structure.
* Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park, N.Y., where $3.5 million is needed to reinforce the foundation of the Roosevelt home, restore sagging floors, and repair the roof.
* San Francisco's Maritime National Historical Park, where the last surviving wooden-hull steam schooner has deteriorated so badly it is now in dry dock and can never be refloated.